Gregg W. Bergersen was a Navy veteran who liked to gamble on occasion but spent far more time worrying about how to earn some serious money after he left his career as an analyst at the Defense Department.
At 51 and supporting a wife and a child in the Virginia suburbs, he wondered how he could get himself cast in that distinctly Washington role many Pentagon types dream of: a rewarding post-retirement perch at one of the hundreds of military-related companies that surround the capital and flourish off lucrative government contracts and contacts.
Mr. Bergersen believed he had found what he was seeking when he was introduced to Tai Shen Kuo, a native of Taiwan, who had lived in New Orleans for more than 30 years. Mr. Kuo, an entrepreneur who imported furniture from China, was active enough in civic affairs to have been named to a state advisory board on international trade. He told Mr. Bergersen that he was developing a defense consulting company.
Now, Mr. Bergersen and Mr. Kuo, along with a third accomplice, are awaiting sentencing in a federal court for their involvement in one of many cases brought in the last year involving the illegal transfer of information to China.
The cases have intensified the evaluation in intelligence and law enforcement circles about the breadth of the threat from Beijing. Many have been similar to the one involving Mr. Bergersen, in that prosecutors describe them as carefully planned intelligence operations run by the Chinese government intended to steal national security secrets. Other cases, however, are less clear in their nature; some seem to be closer to violations of commercial export laws, with the transferred information intended to provide Chinese companies a technological benefit.
According to court papers and interviews, Mr. Kuo and his Chinese handlers ran what intelligence professionals call a “false flag” operation on Mr. Bergersen, a weapons systems analyst, making him believe that the information he was providing was going to Taiwan, an American ally, not Beijing.
Nonetheless, surveillance tapes made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed that Mr. Bergersen understood he was engaged in a serious crime.
While sitting in a rental car on July 10, 2007, Mr. Bergersen pleaded with Mr. Kuo not to tell anyone that he was the source of the information he was providing, which included anticipated American arms sales to Taiwan. “I’d get fired for sure on that,” he said. “Well, not even get fired, go to [expletive] jail.”
While Mr. Bergersen may have convinced himself that the offense was attenuated because the information was going to Taiwan, the recordings show he took the risk mainly because Mr. Kuo regularly dangled a promise that he would eventually take him in as a partner in a defense consulting firm after he retired from the Pentagon and pay him $300,000 to $400,000 a year. In the meanwhile, Mr. Kuo gave him small gifts and took him to Las Vegas, where he treated him to expensive shows and paid for his wagering, all of which were observed by F.B.I. agents.
Beyond the case of Mr. Bergersen, prosecutors in the last year have brought about a dozen cases involving China’s efforts to obtain military-grade accelerometers (used to make smart bombs), defense information about Taiwan, American warship technology, night-vision technology and refinements to make missiles more difficult to detect.
In interviews, current and former intelligence and law enforcement officials demonstrated uncertainty as to the precise scope of the problem of Chinese espionage. But many officials offered a similar description of the pattern of the cases: Chinese government and state-sponsored industries have relied on the Chinese diaspora — using immigrants, students and people of second- and third-generation Chinese heritage — and regular commercial relations to operate a system in which some people wittingly or unwittingly participate.
One senior law enforcement official involved in prosecuting such cases said the Chinese had “a game plan of sending out lots of tiny feelers in hopes of getting back small bits of seemingly unrelated information in hopes of creating a larger picture.”
David W. Szady, who as an assistant director of the F.B.I. ran its counterintelligence division until retiring in 2006, said the Chinese had “mastered the use of multiple redundant collection platforms” by looking for students, delegates to conferences, relatives and researchers to gather information.
Federal investigators have come to believe, Mr. Szady said in an interview, that while the collection system may appear haphazard, even random, the Chinese “have become very focused on what they want.”
Officials said that several other nations, notably Iran and Russia, had aggressively engaged in espionage aimed at the United States. But Joel F. Brenner, the intelligence community’s top counterintelligence official, said China was by far the leading practitioner.